With all authorized homeless camps full to capacity and the Johnson Street Emergency Shelter due to close on April 18, individuals are returning to the encampment under the Reserve Street Bridge.

Montana Department of Transportation District Administrator Bob Vosen spoke to KGVO News on Friday about the issue.

“At MDT, we're just continuing to work with the local law enforcement on what we can do,” said Vosen. “There have been some legal concerns asking can we have folks removed from the encampment area? Who has the authority to do that? One of the other questions that we get is are we making it illegal to be an individual that's experiencing homelessness? And no, we're not.”

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Vosen said as deeply as he feels for homeless persons, his first responsibility is to protect the infrastructure of the Reserve Street Bridge area.

“We're trying to protect public infrastructure,” he said. “We're trying to make sure that we have everything in line so that the law enforcement groups can enforce trespass laws. What does that look like? We ran into some challenges, and we're just continuing to work with the local law enforcement officials to get past those challenges so that we can try to have the area secured again.”

Vosen said numerous fires under the bridge over the years have put the bridge itself in possible jeopardy.

“The number one concern for me is the safety of the infrastructure,” he said. “We've had fires down there before under the bridge, and there's some delamination of the concrete, which basically means the concrete is flaking in one place from a fire that was under there. Another concern is with people storing propane tanks under the bridge, and other flammable items that can burn hot. With propane tanks, if the fire gets in the area it could be a very disastrous situation.”

Anyone who has had to cross the Reserve Street Bridge while firefighters or emergency vehicles are in the area knows how difficult the passage can be, however Vosen said the situation could be far worse.

“Right now when first responders are down there responding to a fire or an ambulance, they have to park on the bridge and close one, sometimes two lanes of traffic and it causes problems, and that's just for a short period of time,” he said. “However, if something happens and that bridge is damaged, and we're talking about closing it for an extended period of time, that could be crippling to the road network in the Missoula area.”

The Reserve Street Bridge encampment was closed for several weeks with a large fence surrounding the property, but parts of the fence have been removed and there are campers in the area once again.

Vosen said he is working with law enforcement to address the issue, but he said it is not a crime to experience homelessness.

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